Comes Santa for a Soldier

"They said there'll be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on Earth
But instead it just kept on raining ..."

Dateline: American soil

I try to understand, but I don't.

I try to believe, but I can't.

I try to hope, but nothing happens.

When I scream, no one hears me.

When I cry, no one wipes my tears.

When I shake, no one holds me.

I am alone.

I am far from home.

I am alone.

I am a stranger here.

I am alone.

I am away from my loved ones.

I am alone.

I am hated here.

I am alone.

I am away from my family, and I miss them.

I am alone.

I am here to protect you.

I am alone.

I am here on foreign soil for Christmas.

I am alone.

I am an American soldier.

We are given a present every day. It can't be wrapped. It won't fit in a stocking, card, or under the tree.

But it is the most important gift we will ever be given.

Period. End of story. Turn out the lights.

The gift ... freedom.

Without it, we are not us. We would be someone else who wishes they were us.

We are free.

Free to be smart ... free to be stupid ... free to come ... free to go ... free to stay ... free to do stuff ... free to do nothing. Free to be free!

Imagine that. We Americans have a no-leash law ... for us. Be we mutts or pedigrees, no muzzles.

Freedom is what brings "man" and "kind" together.

Santa doesn't bring freedom. You can ask Santa for freedom, but you'll probably only get socks. Maybe a gift card.

Freedom is a gift that everyone wants, but not something everyone wants to give. Some believe it is OK for them, but not for you. You do what they say, but not what they do.

You've got to snatch freedom. Grab it, hold onto it, wrangle with it, fight for it.

I saw freedom in Best Buy last week. Standing there in line, freedom just snuck up on me. Freedom in HDTV.

I was waiting to check out, in front of me, 20 or so people, behind me, even more. It was Black & Blue Tuesday. As I stood there I was watching a bank of high-def TVs and thinking about how this used to be how the world looked when I had young eyes, not so much anymore.

HDTV is ophthalmology with a remote.

But then I saw what was actually happening inside the TV case. Car bombs in Iraq, rifles perched on rocks in Afghanistan ... young American servicemen and servicewomen far from home, protecting our freedom, every day, but especially during this holiday period.

And it hit me so strong, that I stepped out of line. I'm giving gift cards; they're giving their lives.

So I went home.

I'll go back and stand in line, when all the American soldiers can stand there with me.

When they are no longer away from home.

And all alone.

On the 12th day of Christmas ...

A normal Sunday morning.

Riley had just been out for his morning walk and was now being chased around the house by Barb in their morning play ritual.

Nineteen degrees outside, blue sky, white earth covered in snow. Flames in the fireplace via the remote set at 68 degrees.

Starbucks Christmas blend just brewed, Barb's "Barry Manilow Christmas 1999" cup filled and steaming as she sat down at the computer next to me.

I'm at my computer working in my office, or what Barb prefers to call the dining room.

Behind us, in our living room, the Christmas tree up and lit. Stocking hung, some presents under it along with a few Riley dog bones and chew toys. Smells of Yankee Candle, the roast being defrosted in the microwave, Christmas cinnamon and vanilla cookies.

As always my iPod in the dock, and today I hit my Christmas playlist so Barb and Riley would walk into the spirit of Christmas. The sights, the smells, the sounds.

Ding. The sound of e-mail. I look up at the computer screen and all I see on the subject line is this: Thank You.

It's not colored in brown so my computer doesn't think it's junk mail ... me, I'm not so sure.

But I open it ... as I do so, behind me Andy Williams is singing "Silent Night" in our living room.

And it's an e-mail from an infantry soldier in Iraq.

Corporal Will Bennett.

A team leader for B. Company 1-252 out of Smithfield, N.C.

On his second tour of duty.

I have no idea who this guy is.

But he writes this: "The way you write gets me through some tough days ... "

Again, as I'm reading this e-mail that came out of nowhere, Andy Williams is ramping up "Silent Night," Barb and Riley are giggling as they run around the house, the place smells like cinnamon ... family.

In our back yard, big white flakes fall out of the sky and cover the evergreen trees in the forest. Any minute Norman Rockwell will come along and install a white picket fence.

On my street, the lights of the season, candy canes, wreaths, blow-up Santas.

But no roadside bombs.

Not a one.

No snipers.

Not a one.

No car bombs.

Not a one.

On my street there is no war.

Not a one.

Just peace.

I live on a street filled with inflatable Santas and peace because of Cpl. William Bennett.

And thousands of others just like him.

Christmas comes to Connecticut because of them.

A young man in the sand writes this to an old guy in the snow:

Mr. Barone,

My name is Will Bennett and i just wanted to take a minute to thank you for what you do. The way you write gets me through some tough days, in an inspiring kind of way. I love the fact that you're not the greatest fisherman in the world but have the passion for what you write about as if fishing puts food on your table. I am currently in Iraq serving on my second tour as an infantry team leader with the N.C. National Guard, and your articles make my days better. The love you have for our sport and our country can not be hidden in your writing. Thank you again for the great articles and maybe i will see you at the classic in Feb. (I should be coming home in about a month).

Best wishes
Will Bennett


So, now that I know he's not junk mail, I e-mail him back ... in IRAQ! And this is, in a nutshell, basically what I say:

Corporal, SIR, your e-mail made my day better, made my Christmas better, and your service makes my life better. Cpl. Will Bennett, whoever you are ... THANK YOU.

Yes, Cpl. Bennett, there is a Santa, and he's YOU!

You know those little sticky things you put on gifts ... they've got a snowman, snowflake or Santa on it along with TO: and FROM:

TO: Barbie, Ashley or Jimmy.

FROM: Santa Clause

Which of course they know is me, because most likely Santa spells better.

Here's how the gift label should read though:

TO: Ya'll.

FROM: The Army, The Navy, The Marines, The Air Force, The Coast Guard, your local cops and fire fighters.

Without those people standing between us and them, the them's wouldn't be letting us do this.

And "this" is our life. How we want to live it, our way. Freedom. Free to talk, free to say nothing, free to listen, free to walk away. Free to believe in the religion of your choice, or not to believe in anything. Free to say yes, free to say no.


Every gift you open this season comes wrapped in freedom. And it's given to you by people like Cpl. William Bennett.

A 26-year-old kid (to me a 57-year-old used-to-be-kid) from Roanoke Rapids, N.C. in his SECOND tour in Iraq. His first tour was in 2004-05 where he spent his 21st birthday raiding a home in Iraq.

What were you doing when you turned 21? I was doing something in a bar that I can't remember right now.

During his first tour he was in a vehicle that took an improvised explosive device (IED) hit, he suffered what he called only minor injuries ... a concussion and some hearing loss.

And he still went back. ... Second tour now with the North Carolina National Guard. When he is not on duty in Iraq this young man works at the North Carolina National Guard Joint Force Headquarters Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh.

But his real love is the outdoors, especially fishing. Any kind of fishing makes him happy, but as he patrols the neighborhoods in Iraq, he has a dream -- and a goal -- to save the money from his second deployment so that when he comes home he will be able to buy a bass boat.

And in time, start fishing bass tournaments.

I know all of this, because again, out of nowhere, I get this e-mail from his girlfriend, Amanda:


Subject: From Will Bennett's Girlfriend
To: Don Barone
Mr. Barone,
I want to thank you for taking the time to let him know that he had touched you. And I wanted to let you know that you touched him (and me)as well. He called and was so excited and forwarded me the e-mail. I am sure he did not expect a response at all. And to get such a thoughtful response so quickly was something truly special for him. Then he called me today and told me that other people that had received the e-mail had e-mailed him to thank him for his service. You have not only helped to make him feel that he is appreciated, but have given him something special to look forward to, and have also given him the spirit of Christmas in a place where that is lacking. I truly wish that I could have taped the joy, disbelief, and appreciation in his voice so that you might have heard it.




 Now I've cut the e-mail up a bit to protect Amanda from any whackos out there, but there is one key sentence in the thing: "Then he called me today and told me that other people that had received the e-mail had e-mailed him to thank him for his service."

You see, when I got Cpl. William Bennett's e-mail I forwarded it to a few of my several thousand bosses at ESPN and Bassmaster ... and that's when things got interesting.

Comes Santa to a serviceman

Cpl. Bennett ended his original e-mail to me by saying, "... Maybe I will see you at the classic in Feb. (I should be coming home in about a month)."

Cpl. Bennett, YOU WILL see me there ... because Bassmaster is going to bring you and Amanda to the Classic in Birmingham, Ala., this Feb. 19-21.

On them, dude. Their treat.

Merry Christmas.

We will get you passes, rooms, and thank yous for all that you have done for all of us who will be there.

Without you, and all the others like you who have drawn that line in the sand, none of us would be able to throw a line in the water.

When I e-mailed Cpl. Bennett in Iraq all this information this is what came back:

Mr. Barone,

I really can not find anything to say. This is truly the nicest thing that has happened to me in a long time. Thank you so much for this, you have truly made my Christmas special.

On Christmas morning I will sit in my recliner and watch my family, and Riley, open their gifts, try the stuff on, try the stuff out, look for batteries, directions, care labels.

At some point I will fall asleep in my chair to the smells of cinnamon and vanilla, mashed potatoes and prime rib, scotch tape and crinkled-up Santa gift wrap.

Later that night as we gather around the Christmas table I will raise a glass of frozen margarita and I will make this toast:

"To freedom ... and to all those Cpl. William Bennetts for giving us the gift of freedom."

Then I will give my family my Christmas wish list for next year ... Christmas 2011. And on it will be only one wish.

That when I walk into the New Orleans Arena for the 2011 Bassmaster Classic weigh-in and I look up into the stands, that those stands are filled, EVERYWHERE, with military service people.

I am alone no more.

I am back on my soil.

I am alone no more.

I am back with my family.

I am an American soldier.

And we are all back home.

"... I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear."
"I Believe in Father Christmas"

Emerson, Lake & Palmer



Don Barone is an award-winning outdoors writer and a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Guild of the U.K. You can reach db at

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